Americans turn to Stoicism in their search for meaning

Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism

by ,  Arizona State University
(originally appeared in “The Conversation” Nov. 29, 2023)

Stoicism may be having a renaissance. For centuries, the ancient philosophy that originated in Greece and spread across the Roman Empire was more or less treated as extinct – with the word “stoic” hanging on as shorthand for someone unemotional. But today, with the help of the internet, it’s gaining ground: one of the biggest online communities, The Daily Stoic, claims to have an email following of over 750,000 subscribers.

Perhaps it’s not so surprising. The United States’ current political climate has parallels to the last few centuries B.C. in ancient Rome, home of notable Stoics like the the philosopher Epictetus, a former slave, and the emperor Marcus Aurelius. During this period of instability, including the fall of the Roman Republic, Stoicism helped its practitioners find community, meaning and tranquility.

Today, too, society faces widespread feelings of isolationdepression and anxiety. Meanwhile, more and more people are looking for answers outside of mainstream religion. According to a 2022 Gallup Poll, 21% of Americans now say they have no religious affiliation.

Riding this resurgence of interest in Stoicism, I designed a college philosophy class that covers both theory and practice. When I ask students why they enrolled, I hear not only a genuine interest in the subject but also a desire to find meaning, purpose and personal development.

Core principles

Ancient Stoicism aimed to be a complete philosophy encompassing ethics, physics and logic. Yet most modern Stoics focus primarily on ethics, and they typically adopt four Stoic principles.

The first is that virtue is the only or highest good, including the cardinal virtues of wisdom, temperance, courage and justice. Everything apart from virtue – including wealth, health and reputation – might be nice to have, but they do not directly contribute to human flourishing.

A bust of a man draped in robes, with short, curly hair and a beard.
Marcus Aurelius: not just an emperor but a Stoic philosopher. Bibi Saint-Pol/Glyptothek/Wikimedia

Second, people ought to live in accordance with nature or reason. This principle reflects the Stoic belief that the universe exhibits a rational order, so we ought to align our beliefs and actions with eternal principles. Living in accordance with nature also reveals the interconnectedness of all things, showing how humans are part of a larger whole.

Third, a person can control only their own actions – not external events. Epictetus laid out this dichotomy in the opening sentence of The Enchiridion, a collection of his core teachings compiled by his student Arrian: “Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”

The fourth principle is that thoughts about external events are often the source of discontentment or distress – a view that has influenced modern cognitive behavioral therapy. Again, this idea comes directly from Epictetus: “Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things.”

Taken together, these principles form the bedrock of modern Stoicism, which aims to provide a coherent philosophy of life. Its hope is that once the practitioner accepts they are not entirely in control, they start building resilience and reducing anxiety. Not only is each individual the architect of their emotional life, but people can shape their own judgments in ways that are conducive to greater inner peace.

Stoicism in practice

In Discourses, Epictetus unequivocally states that study is not enough – in order to become virtuous, a person must couple study with practice. “In theory, there is nothing to restrain us from drawing the consequences of what we have been taught,” he noted, “whereas in life there are many things that pull us off course.”

In other words, philosophy is not only an intellectual endeavor but a practical and spiritual one: a way of life designed to move practitioners toward the Stoic conception of the good. Learning to cultivate core Stoic principles involves certain spiritual exercises.

My class incorporates a variety of these exercises so students can get a taste of Stoicism in practice. One is the “view from above,” which encourages the practitioner to imagine their life and certain situations from a bird’s-eye view, putting the insignificance of their current troubles in perspective.

Another is “negative visualization”: contemplating the absence of something we value. Instead of worrying about losing something, a person intentionally meditates on its absence, with the intention of fostering gratitude and contentment. When doing this exercise in class, students have imagined the loss of a possession, a scholarship or even a beloved pet.

A tan and gray illustration of a man in simple clothing, seated with a crutch by his side, writing and looking over his shoulder.
An illustration of Epictetus, likely drawn by William Sonmans and engraved by Michael Burghers, that served as frontispiece for a translation of Epictetus’ Enchiridion, printed in 1715. John Adams Library at the Boston Public Library/Aristeas/Wikimedia

A third exercise is journaling to plan and review one’s day. Reflecting on thoughts and actions allows a more objective, rational way to judge whether someone is living in accordance with their principles.

Once the exercises are incorporated with theory, Stoicism can become a type of spiritual project. As Epictetus wrote, “For just as wood is the material of the carpenter, and bronze that of the sculptor, the art of living has each individual’s own life as its material.”

The way of the prokopton

So what does it mean to be a practicing Stoic – a “prokopton,” in Greek?

For both ancient and modern practitioners, Stoicism is more than a set of abstract ideas. It is a set of guiding principles that permeate all aspects of one’s life. The goal is progress, not perfection – and exploring Stoic ideas alongside others is encouraged.

Today, there are at least three relatively robust Stoic communities online: The Daily StoicModern Stoicism and the College of Stoic Philosophers.

By having dedicated communities, a guiding framework and distinctive spiritual exercises, parallels between Stoicism and many mainstream religions are undeniable. For modern people looking for such things, Stoicism may serve as a surrogate or complement to mainstream religion. People today tend to find the original Stoics’ notions about physics and theology implausible, but apart from those ideas, the core principles of modern Stoicism can be palatable to people who identify with contemporary faith traditions – or none.

The ancient Greeks believed that a philosophy of life is critical for human flourishing. Without a guiding ethos, they feared, individuals are likely to lead unstructured and unproductive lives, to pursue superficial pleasures and to feel that their lives lack purpose. Stoicism offered a path for some to follow – then, and now.

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7 thoughts on “Americans turn to Stoicism in their search for meaning

  1. It was inevitable. Many American people have believed plenty of weird and useless things for a while now. Even a non-American like me gave a shot at all this ridiculous Anthony Robbins stuff, or worse, complete garbage like ‘The Secret’ (although this has happened many years ago, and I approached this junk skeptically, through friends.).

    I just wanted to learn something. I wanted to start to understand something, and why nothing seemed to make sense. I don’t believe the Americans who are turning to Stoicism arrived at it in a dissimilar way.

    The most practical, and helpful area of philosophy has always been Stoicism, but I suspect that the reason why it only ended up in specialist courses in universities, and it was not spoken of, is because its connection with suicide outlooks.

    But this is a terrible mistake: the Stoics didn’t LIKE suicide. They all learned from Plato, who wrote: ‘If one’s hand has not been unmistakably forced by fate, and chose to commit suicide, they should be buried ignominiously, in the middle of nowhere, and should never be remembered.’. (paraphrasing).

    Epictetus, of which I have been reading everything multiple times, and continue to do so, seems to be making light of suicide: ‘Remember, the door is always open.’. But he only says this as some of us said to someone when they were expecting something to be different than what it is. We would say, ‘well, shoot yourself.’. (I personally never said such a callous thing, but I have been told that by a friend, and he was a real friend, he just made his point in the only way he knew).

    So there’s various stigmas attached to Stoicism, but this is a great shame, for I myself can say I truly learned valuable things from it, and have never learned anything useful before from anyone.

    It is to me a mystery why few people seem to care to know these great truths, such as: ‘Don’t expect things to have occurred in any other ways than they did. For if you do that, you will feel pain, you will be wretched, you will be consumed by sorrow’.

    It was inevitable for Americans to turn to the greatest school of thought of all. And the most dumb people are the ones who studied various areas of philosophy and say of Stoicism that ‘it’s simple’. It’s not simple, for knowing something doesn’t mean you really get it: it’s in the application of it that you truly can say you know it. And that is NOT simple.

    Moreover, I believe there’s other schools of thought that have much in common with Stoicisim, who practically come from different worlds, such as the Hagakure and the Dokkodo. But as these ‘doctrines’ (and I detest the term, for one can and should simply learn and use whatever is useful, regardless of which ‘doctrine’ it comes from, something that has been indeed be said also by Holiday) are all connected to Zen Buddhism, perhaps it is not so surprising: after all, truth is universal.

    Of course, we do not agree with every single thing that Seneca or Tsunetomo wrote. These men lived long ago, and the world was at least somewhat different than today’s world. But knowing that when I hit a nail with a hammer and accidentally hit my thumb with it creates a lot of pain, it’s as true for an atheist as it is for a Buddhist, a Stoic thinker, or the average person.

    The reason why Americans are turning to Stoicism it’s simply because a lot of grave things happened and continue to happen, and they, as I, need to make sense of it. They turned to everything else and found this to be junk: ridiculous ideas, politics, etc.

    They need something that is grounded in self-empowerment, that is completely detached from ‘externals’, as Epictetus called them, that makes one self-reliant. I believe this is the essence of Stoicism, and it’s simple only if one reduces it to commonplaces such as ‘God gave me the power to change things myself, or if they can’t be changed, to resign myself to it.’.

    No, this is superficiality and commonplace. One really has to dig deep into Stoicism, everything about it has to be read, starting from Plato and the Cynics. Holiday wakes up in the morning and stares at something written on a wall, reminding himself of death. This has not been done before in America, what was being done is having someone writing junk about how you too can be a millionaire.

    I believe this is one main reason why we go around being callous and mean to each other: we don’t get that in the end, we all end up under some dirt. Stoicism throws this in one’s face, continuously. These lessons are too important to be missed.

    In the Hagakure, Tsunetomo says exactly the same things as the Stoics brought ho: ‘You should remind yourself of death, every day’.
    People have been duped by junk long enough….indeed Stoicism is taking over, and this really is a great thing. This is true growth for anyone: Stoicism teaches one to ‘stop going around as if he were going to live ten thousand years’, and to be aware of death, the number one lesson in it; that in life, bad and undesirable things are should be even expected (another exact same thing found in the Hagakure), and that we should not complain needlessly, the smaller and more insignificant things are.

    All this seems quite at odds in a society that does exactly the opposite: denies death and runs from it, thinks it’s immortal or very long lasting, moan and rants about the most stupid things, how the soup is cold or the new iphone was received with one day of delay, etc…..

  2. ”But he only says this as some of us said to someone when they were expecting something to be different than what it is..”

    But of course, Epictetus is also not speaking ironically but literally. It would be high time that the suicide part in Stoicism is clarified, and interpreted in the right contexts: I am pretty sure that all the Stoics made great distinctions between someone hanging themselves because of ‘unrequited love’, say, which they would have seen as incredibly weak and childish (which is), and to do it for the reasons the actor Robin Williams did it.

    I can just imagine Epictetus saying today: ‘What? You people still do not have in place a lawful, organized, painless way to exit life if it truly is the best choice (because of terminal illness, for example), and have to resort to the same rough, desperate, primitive ways it has always been done? Oh my. It looks like your only constant ‘progress’ has been about smartphones.”.

  3. While I share your optimism on this, I am uncertain, even skeptical. Hold on to your seat:
    Emotionlessness , aka, stoicism, is one defense mechanism we employ, in order to cope with dire straits and difficult circumstances. The original stoics must have had their share of difficulties. And, in their time, those must have been daunting enough. Emotionlessness=numbness. That, in itself, is advantage. I have brief encounters with strangers, leading into the coming Christmas and holiday season. Hospitals are a melange of emotions, any time. I can pretty well tell the stoics from empaths…Except for people, glued to smart phones. They are not responsively conscious. More, I cannot say.

  4. Outstanding Essay—Epictetus is one of the soundest Teachers I have ever read.

    “Now the Carpenter does not come to you and say come and here me discourse on Carpentry, he gives you a contract and builds you a house, likewise do this in life,
    eat like a man, drink like a man, be well caring of wife and childen, and be a good citizen!

    Epictetus Discourses

  5. thanks for all your thoughts about Stoicism. And their belief in voluntary active euthanasia is, in my view, well founded.

  6. I love Admiral Stockdale’s Essays on Epictetus as well;

    “Like its Christian Counterparts Calvinism and Puritanism, Stoicism produced men of Saintliness, Courage and Goodwill ” Men like Cato who opposed himself to Ceaser,
    and Marcus Aurelius who took the Roman Empire to the height of its Greatness and Power ” Will Durant “Stockdale on Stoicism Essay #1

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